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Health & Science

Minority Patients Struggle To Find Marrow Matches For Certain Cancers

Doctors are seeking minority groups to register as bone marrow donors.


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Doctors who treat leukemia and lymphomas are putting out a special call for Asian-Americans and other minority groups in Houston to step up and register to become potential bone marrow donors. Signing up is easy: it requires a cheek swab and a commitment to possibly help a patient in need in the future.

Chen Gong’s doctors at Houston Methodist are searching the Be the Match Registry for a bone marrow donor. Gong, 26, immigrated to Houston from Shanghai when she was 15, graduated from the Alief school district, and now works an office job for an energy company.

Last summer she noticed a red rash on her legs. “And I felt really sick,” she recalled. “So I came to the hospital and they found out that my white counts (were) really high. And I have leukemia.”

Dr. Swaminathan Iyer

Gong tried chemotherapy, but then had a relapse a few weeks ago. Her only hope for a permanent cure now would be a donation of bone marrow cells, according to her doctor, Houston Methodist hematologist Dr. Swaminathan Iyer.

“And the new bone marrow produces a new immune system that can get rid of the leukemia,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for many, many years.”

“But the majority of the donors are of the northern European descent. Everyone else it’s just a small number, in the single digits. Whether it’s the African-Americans, the Hispanics, the Asians, and also the American Indians.”

Only 30 percent of all patients, regardless of background, find a good matching donor in their family. The other 70 percent, like Gong, have to go to the Be the Match Registry.

“I’m Asian and you know I’m the only child in the family,” she said. “I don’t have much chance to find the donor here.”

The chance of an Asian patient finding a marrow donor is 20 percentage points less than a white patient, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.

“Trying to find a donor is almost like finding a needle in a haystack,” Iyer said.

Iyer says Houston could potentially be a fertile recruiting ground for donors from diverse backgrounds. Networks of doctors and scientists have contacted churches and community groups representing Chinese and south Asian Houstonians, as well as Vietnamese, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis.

“The more representation you have, the more lives you can save,” he said.

Gong says she will cycle in and out of the hospital for chemo, month after month, until she finds a match. As she speaks, she sits cross-legged on her hospital bed, a stretchy yellow cap on her head. Her fingers twist and pull the straps of a hospital face mask, as her boyfriend hovers near the door.

“I hope I can get cured,” she said softly. “Because I still have a lot of things to do. You know I want to get married and I want to have my own family. I want to be with my family.”

For more information on how to register, visit Be The Match. Local blood donation sites often have information as well. 


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